Hermann Stainer

IP-Software Developer & Consultant, MBA, CEO of Sympatent Software GmbH

IP Monitoring

Monitoring both own and competitors’ patents and applications is a powerful, but often overlooked way to gain competitive intelligence. One of my main fields of work is to create software that helps companies and law firms to both protect and grow their patent activities.

Recent Articles

EPO Patent Applications At An All-time High In 2017

The European Patent Office has published its annual report for 2017. (Image Source: European Patent Office)

Around 166,000 patent applications were submitted to the European Patent Office in 2017, more than ever before in the history of the Office. According to its recently released annual report of 2017, the increase over the previous year is 3.9% for patent applications and 10.1% for publications of issued patents.

The following developments can be read from the annual report:

  1. The demand for European patents is increasing all over the world. The five most active countries of origin were the US, Germany, Japan, France and China. Applications from the United States increased by 5.8%, which is especially interesting since they had dropped in 2016 due to the changes in US patent law introduced in 2013.
  2. For some countries, applications focused on specific areas, e.g. in the case of China and South Korea, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector. By contrast, in most European countries, as well as in the US and Japan, applications are more broadly distributed among different sectors.
  3. The three technology segments with the largest number of patent applications remain identical in comparison to the previous year: medical technology, digital communication and computer technology. The strongest growth in the ten most active technology fields was in biotechnology with 14.5%, followed by pharmaceuticals with 8.1% and measurement with 6.6%.
  4. The company with the most patent applications in 2017 is Huawei from China, followed by Siemens, LG, Samsung and Qualcomm. Large companies account for 69% of patent applicants, with the remaining 31% coming from small and medium-sized enterprises, individual inventors, universities and public research organizations.

Overall, it can be said that there is still only one direction for the number of patent applications: up. For all actors in the patent sector, such as companies and patent law firms, this means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of all relevant new applications and their procedural statuses.

Iconic Patents: The Football

Will it be a running play or a passing play? This question did not arise in American Football for a long time, because the balls of the early days could basically not be passed.

About This Series Of Articles

Behind every patent there is a story—and in this series of articles I would like to introduce some of the most well-known. Inventions that caused a sensation and gained cult status. I will also address the inventors and applicants of these patents.

While modern American Football cosists of a variety of plays, it is mainly the long, spectacular forward passes that are associated with the sport. A mostly forgotten fact today is that this type of passing game was impractical over much of the early days of the sport. The reason for this was the most important element of the game: the football. The pioneers of the game had to struggle with numerous problems of their ball.

The story of the manufactured inflatable ball begins around 1849 with English leatherworker Richard Lindon, who happened to have his shop nearby the Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, known for being the birthplace of Rugby football. Lindon’s business soon shifted from producing footwear to supplying the pupils of the school with footballs. While the outside consisted of stitched leather, the inside was a pig’s bladder and inflated by mouth using a pipe, a very dangerous process since it was possible that the pig was diseased and oneself could get infected. Lindon therefore had the idea of using natural rubber instead (despite this and numerous other inventions, he never filed a patent application).

Due to the origin of the bladder, there originally was no other way but to play Rugby with a round-shaped ball. It was difficult to carry, and throwing was not only infeasible but also against the rules. However, the switch to rubber opened the possibility of using other shapes, and in 1874, a new ball was used that had a shape similar to a watermelon.

American Football started with such Rugby footballs, but in 1906, the forward pass was legalized and soon after that, new rules allowed the use of a ball that was essentially an oversize version of today’s modern football. But running plays were still the only viable strategy, since the ball was constantly deflating, losing its shape, and as a result was awkward to throw. While this was already a big challenge for manufacturers to overcome, it was also a very complicated and time-consuming process to inflate the ball. Football games sometimes were halted with players taking turns on blowing up the ball. Multiple patents were granted on various inventions to solve this issue, such as a syringe-like device. In addition, for each inflation, the ball had to be unlaced (and then laced up again), and each ball had metal stem valves that not only made it uneven and therefore difficult to throw, but were also dangerous for the players.

Evolution of the football: to the left an illustration from a 1925 patent, to the right from a 1939 patent.
Evolution of the football: to the left an illustration from a 1925 patent, to the right from a 1939 patent.

Patents show the evolution of the football: over the years, its shape was more and more enhanced for making pass plays possible. In his 1925 patent US 1,559,117, John E. Maynard writes: “This invention has for its object to provide a football especially adapted for use in playing the present open game wherein the ball is frequently thrown by hand in the play known as the ‘forward pass’. In the execution of this play, it is necessary that the ball be grasped by the end and quickly and accurately thrown, and in wet weather, when the ball is slippery, it is difficult to obtain a sufficiently grip thereon to accomplish this successfully.”

14 years later, in 1939, patent US 2,182,053 by Milton B. Reach shows the shape further advanced to the football as we know it today, amongst many other improvements. Not much later, in 1941, Samuel “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh of the Washington Redskins became the NFL’s first well-known passing quarterback. Nowadays, manufacturers continue to improve the football on aspects such as materials used, enhanced grip, and durability.

Next week, the Philadelphia Eagles will play the New England Patriots in the 52nd Super Bowl. While the winner has yet to be determined, one thing is certain: the fans are going to see spectacular passing plays that would not be possible without the great inventions along the development of the football. I wish all fans a great game!

Iconic Patents: The D-Pad

Not just known by fans of video games: the D-pad (pictured left) allows you to enter directions using just one finger, your thumb.

About This Series Of Articles

Behind every patent there is a story—and in this series of articles I would like to introduce some of the most well-known. Inventions that caused a sensation and gained cult status. I will also address the inventors and applicants of these patents.

Even if the term D-pad initially sounds unfamiliar—you’ve probably used one before. The "Directional Pad" was originally developed for the operation of video games, but nowadays is used in a variety of devices, e.g. TV remotes, mobile phones, or scientific calculators. It is a flat control, mostly operated by using the left thumb, and has the form of a plus sign that allows easy input of the four basic directions left / right and up / down. In most cases far more than just these four directions are possible, e.g. the input of "left-up". Today's D-Pads are often sensitive enough to support up to 16 different directions.

Prior to the invention of the D-pad, the input of such directional information was achieved by using individual buttons (one for each direction), or via so-called joysticks. The latter are still used today and offer higher precision (i.e. much more than the aforementioned 16 directions), but are not as compact and also have the major disadvantage that they are not as easy to use—because, instead of just the thumb, multiple fingers are required.

The US patent for the D-pad was submitted in 1985 by the entertainment-electronics company Nintendo. Inventor was none other than Gunpei Yokoi, well-known in the industry and famous for his significant contributions to the development of the “Game Boy”.

Illustrations from the US patent.
Illustrations from the US patent.

The patent gave Nintendo the exclusive usage rights for 20 years. This forced the competition, such as Sony or Microsoft, to use alternative approaches for their products, e.g. instead of the plus-sign shape a circular control was used. As soon as the patent expired in 2005, these workarounds were immediately replaced by the now freely available D-pad technology.

In retrospect, there are few patents in the entertainment-electronics industry—a sector that is certainly not poor in terms of innovation—that have achieved such a cult status as the D-pad. Even if nowadays very diverse control methods are used, it has revolutionized the world of video games and also apart from games and entertainment has significantly influenced how directional input can be achieved in a user-friendly manner.

It’s Christmas time and with this toy-related article I would like to wish you Merry Christmas, great holidays with your families and friends, and a wonderful New Year. Thank you for reading my articles and being a visitor of my website. See you in 2018! Hermann

Introduction to Patent Monitoring, Part 1/3: Why Monitor?

Being warned of potential threats to the own company is one of the reasons why patent monitoring should be considered.

About This Series Of Articles

In 2016, the European Patent Office received nearly 160,000 patent applications. Around 95,900 patents were granted in the same year, more than ever before and an increase of around 40% compared to the previous year. As a research company, and even as a patent professional, it is very difficult to keep track of what is important to you. Missing crucial applications and patents is a constant thought—and the consequences hardly comprehensible. (EPO, Annual Report 2016)

In this series of articles, I want to show you strategies to minimize this risk and monitor the patent situation in your technical area with simple and time-saving means. Become active instead of having to react defensively to the strategies of the competition!

In the first part of my article series on patent monitoring, I would like to explain why the monitoring of both own and third-party patent applications in the own industry should under no circumstances be neglected  by any company and research organization—even if one does not own any patents. Monitoring means, in the simplest sense, to stay up to date. The data published by the patent offices is very extensive and, when appropriately filtered and prepared, provides a wealth of information that can both help protect and grow your company and its intellectual property and give you an advantage over the competition.

I would like to highlight the following six aspects:

  1. Monitoring as a pre-warning device. Getting critical information at the earliest possible moment can create new opportunities for your business. A patent for a new technology relevant to your field of activities is filed? To know this even before the patent is issued can e.g. enable the early negotiation of an exclusive license to gain a competitive advantage. In addition, information on recently expired patents—e.g. because an annual fee was not paid—can be very beneficial.
  2. Monitoring keeps an eye on the competition. Freshly published patent applications from the competition can shed light on which market segments or product properties your competitors would like to focus on in the near future. At the same time, you can prevent competitors from systematically “filling gaps” and expanding their patent portfolio without your knowledge—instead, you can react immediately and possibly at least gain time.
  3. Monitoring can indicate directions for your research and development. Patents are not only granted for breakthrough innovations, but also for new products or methods that offer advantages or improvements over existing technology. Knowing the latest developments at an early stage can provide your own research ideas along with a time lead for further developments.
  4. Monitoring can prevent research and development in the wrong direction. Research and development is expensive—and can ultimately be obsolete if a competitor is faster and the first to apply for a patent on an innovation. Just as the knowledge of current patent applications can indicate new directions, it can also be useful to prevent unnecessarily wasting resources on something that in the end cannot be commercially exploited by your organization.
  5. Monitoring can detect potential infringement. The identification of newly published inventions that potentially violate the intellectual property of your company allows the early initiation of appropriate legal action or licensing agreements.
  6. Monitoring can complement your patent strategy. In addition to the actual technical content, the monitoring of patent applications can provide a wealth of information of strategic nature: which business model will your competition be pursuing, e.g. will the focus be on innovation or cost reduction? How should your business behave, e.g. increase or decrease R&D spendings? How is your industry developing, e.g. are there new competitors, or new products that could make yours obsolete? How do the patent offices and courts of your relevant markets evolve, e.g. are there any juridical changes? And last but not least: which patent strategy do you pursue, offensively (for example, generating license revenue) or defensively (securing your freedom to operate) or a mixture of both?


To answer the question of whether and, if so, why patent monitoring could be invaluable to you, you may also ask yourself the following questions: can you afford to be unaware of patent activity in your industry? Can you afford not to consider patent applications of your competitors? If you answer these questions in the negative, then at the end of this first part of my series of articles, I want to encourage you to become more familiar with the topic of patent application monitoring—Part 2 will be posted here on my website shortly. If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me!


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About the Author

Hi, I’m Hermann, I’m in the software business for 20 years—welcome to my website! Here I write mostly about both the software industry in general and my personal experiences with my company Sympatent.

My specialty is IP (=intellectual property) software, which is used by patent professionals such as law firms or companies that own patents.

If you have a question about one of my articles, something to share or just want to chat, please contact me!